Moniack Mhor – there and back again

Way back in the dark days of January, when nothing seemed to be going quite right, I was sent a message by my friend and bookshop colleague Will. The message was a tweet from the illustrator James Mayhew promoting  a “once in a lifetime” retreat he was leading along with Sarah McIntyre, about writing and illustrating picture books, at the beautiful Scottish Creative Writing Centre at Moniack Mhor. I couldn’t afford it* and felt I didn’t really deserve it but I was fed up and feeling directionless so I closed my eyes and pressed “send” on the deposit and also ordered a pair of silver boots for good measure ( I felt sure they would inspire me, and be the perfect antidote to sensible Lake District walking gear).

Well, it’s nine months later, I got home from Scotland on Saturday night and have been processing the experience ever since, reading Sarah and James’s blogs and wondering how I could possibly explain to you, in my own way, how how amazing it all was. I’ve never been on a residential course before, not even the character building ones you go on when you’re at school (although I did once famously-shamefully- run away from a riding holiday I’d pestered my parents for when I was 13 – I was just too shy and couldn’t cope with the streetwise kids from Swansea). At first it all felt a bit like getting sent to the Big Brother house. Since all the Moorside House debacle and moving to the Lakes I’ve lost a lot of self confidence and become quite isolated so I was very aware that my social skills were rusty and I needed a haircut. Everyone was really welcoming though and it was impossible not to feel excited and inspired surrounded by so many lovely people in the impossibly glorious setting of Moniack Mhor. It was good to be back in a place with big skies and air you could bottle; living in a steep sided Lakeland valley with enormous Sycamore trees for neighbours you can’t take light for granted; just look at the view from my desk!

We had group sessions in the mornings with some great creative activities and talks by our esteemed tutors who were so open and generous with their knowledge that I really felt quite over emotional at times (nothing new there I hear my family mutter) Sarah shared the processes behind her top selling books (here she is reading from Grumpycorn, about a unicorn trying to write the best story ever but constantly procrastinating – ha ha, I do REALLY need a donut and some coffee right now…) as well as her very first ever books made as a child. Her message was that the difference between being a writer and just wanting to be one is finishing things and throughout the week she gave us fun tasks which resulted in tiny quick “books” as well as “Comic Jams” and thumbnail layouts. If you’re interested or studying illustration her website has loads of really good advice and inside knowledge.

James Mayhew’s sessions were a joy, a riot of colour and mess as he had us painting to music or making collages to illustrate the traditional stories he told. James’s work includes painting on stage, with orchestras, often working upside down (the paper, not him) and of course his wonderful Katie series, Mouse and Mole with Joyce Dunbar, Mrs Noah’s Pockets with Jackie Morris and the recent Gaspard the Fox books with Zeb Soanes. We were all transported by his storytelling; from memory he recounted traditional tales such as the Baba Yaga, The Firbird and the Orange Princess, conjuring fantastical images and the warm memories of bedtime stories. The final night around the fire, under the stars was a testament to the ancient human urge to gather by smokey firelight to tell stories and share songs and laughter. James also brought with him one of the great characters of the week, his partner Toto, also an artist, who kept us all in stitches with his be-kilted cycling exploits as well as proving to me that you don’t have to dress in beige Gortex to enjoy the outdoors and you can still rock wearing your hair in bunches even if you’re not 12. What a fabulous couple, they made the week for me. (look at James’s blog for some images)

Here we are admiring the results of painting along to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.(mine is the weird green sea monster on the left)

On Wednesday we had a visit from guest speaker Pam Smy who had come all the way from Cambridge for just, one night to share her unbelievably gorgeous sketchbooks and the gruelling 4 year process of completing Thornhill whilst also teaching full time. We were all in awe of her dedication and unique approach to creating her book, not being afraid to reinvent the picture book format to fit the story she wanted to tell.

one of Pam Smy’s incredible sketchbooks

The last day was for showing what we’d achieved and actually I’d not done very much drawing except for a squiggly watercolour/ink sketch of the Hobbit House …

I decided to use it as a cover for a little scrappy “diary” of my week and spent the final afternoon blissfully sitting under a tree, listening to the gorse pods pop in the hot sun (don’t let anyone fool you, Scottish weather is boiling!). It’s only a few pages long but I’ve made it into a wobbly pdf. on my website so that people from the course (or you if you fancy it) can print it out if they want, I hope it works because it was just a bit of fun. I can’t wait make some more and take more time over it.


My tower with Firebird egg dome as well as some chanterelles (?) I picked with Toto.

Scene from a forest walk with Toto (with a nod to Micheal Rosen)

And so, as the coffee pot calls to me, some final thoughts… firstly, I couldn’t fit in all the magical moments and lovely people (we even had surprise bagpipe players and an emotional Burns night supper) without rambling and boring you silly but the most important thing I want to say is a huge THANK YOU, to everyone at Moniack Mhor, to my fellow students and the staff at the centre, to Will for giving me the nudge, Rupert for not going mad that I’d spent the rent paying for the week, my ancient car for making it there and back again and most of all to Sarah and James. Both our tutors are big names in their industry and you might have expected matching egos but the word I keep coming back to is Generosity – they shared so much and were totally open about all the ups and downs on their  roads to success, as well as personal stories of self discovery and secret inside information on the picture books world. I know how tiring it can be teaching workshops and they could have been forgiven for making a bit of space for themselves at the end of a busy day but it wasn’t like that at all which is why I think all of us are still re-living the week and will be for a while yet.

Important housekeeping notes…
*Helen Kellock was on the course and it turns out her actual, real life, utterly stunning book “The Star in the Forest”  is published this month with a launch in Waterstones, Glasgow and this event at the amazing Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh. GoodLuck Helen!
*Sarah McFadyen was also on the course and kept it a secret until the last day that she’s actually a musician and vocalist in the band The Poozies, who I can remember from folk festivals I used to go to. She gave me a CD for my drive home and I love it (It also may have caused me to drive too fast). When I got home I had a giant bath and couldn’t stop singing this song …
*Links to my fellow Picture Bookers Twitter accounts can be found here, most of them are on Instagram too- be sure to follow as they are all amazing.

Finally…back in the real world the fells are putting on their russet cloaks and I’m looking forward to leaf fall when a little more light will filter into the house through old Sycamore’s branches. My next event is the Three Peaks Art Trail which is a taking a bit of getting my head around after a week immersed in Picture Books, it will also be the first event I’ve done that my daddy is also taking part in (yikes!). The new Guide to Whats On at Dove Cottage in Grasmere also includes my workshop there in March next year, I can’t wait to do some cyanotypes inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s garden
The webshop is newly restocked with cards, calendars and NEW money boxes – so you can start saving up in case it all goes wrong next month!

Until next time x

*I was fortunate enough to be able to scrape the money together for the course from money earned selling my stuff at exhibitions and with support from my family but I feel that everyone should get a chance to experience things like this. Moniack Mhor is a registered charity and they do have a Bursary scheme as well as ways patrons can donate to help provide these facilities for people from a diverse range of backgrounds. If you happen to be a kind, rich person please consider becoming a Patron


Reading: Fierce Bad Rabbits, the tales behind children picture books by Clare Pollard

Listening to: The Poozies “Knees of Fire and The Chase”

One response to “Moniack Mhor – there and back again

  1. Lovely write up, Thank you for sharing.

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